Antonio Gades

Flamenco dancer and choreographer

Wednesday 17 July 2013 01:19
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Antonio Esteve Ródenas (Antonio Gades), dancer and choreographer: born Elda, Spain 14 November 1936; four times married (one son, four daughters); died Madrid 20 July 2004.

He had neither gypsy nor Andalusian origins, but Antonio Gades belonged to that mighty line of dancers who popularised flamenco outside Spain. Arguably, he reached an even wider audience than his predecessors: the films he made with Carlos Saura were screened in cinemas around the world and viewed by spectators not normally attuned to dance.

Antonio Gades was born Antonio Esteve Ródenas in Alicante in 1936. His father was a construction labourer - or, in Gades' words, "slave of architects" - who, as a Communist, fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Aged 11, Antonio was forced to leave school. "This was normal for poor families at that time," he explained in an interview last year. "Children had to bring money in as soon as possible, like they have to in India now."

He tried pretty much anything: apprentice footballer, boxer, bullfighter, newspaper messenger boy, photographer's assistant. "It wasn't personal development, but a way of managing to have something to eat every day." He came to dance by chance:

In the streets there were these barrel organs and boys and girls would dance to them. I was about 12 and I started to do this kind of street dancing because I wanted to come close to the girls. Then a neighbour said to my mother, look at your son, he is so handsome and he has a good ear. Why don't you take him to learn dancing? So I went to a dancing school. And I was just copying, mimicking like a monkey.

Only months later he was spotted by the great Spanish dancer Pilar Lopez. By then he was 15. She changed his name to Antonio Gades and took him into her company, where, as he said, he became a student all over again. He was raw, but he had the appearance of a film star. He had a lean, rangy body, a chiselled face and thick straight brown hair, all guaranteed to set hearts fluttering.

He went round the world with Pilar Lopez's company and grew up as a dancer. From her he learnt integrity. "It's something you learn for any profession, any attitude in life," he said. "In essence you do not prostitute what you have learnt. You do not overdo things in search of applause." When later he was to choreograph his own pieces, he would make them without any breaks:

All the choreography runs through, so there is no opportunity for applause. For me, the biggest mark of success would be to have people lower their head at the end and remain silent. They would keep the feeling within themselves instead of applauding.

In 1962, after a decade with Lopez, he decided it was time to make his own way. He moved to Italy, where he worked as a choreographer and collaborated with the composer and director Gian Carlo Menotti on a production of Carmen. He also appeared in Carmen Amaya's flamenco film Los Tarantos. And in 1963, back in Spain, he formed his own dance company.

The company's performances in Barcelona resulted in an invitation to the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Its huge success there launched it on decades of touring in Europe, Japan and the United States. Gades had started with just six dancers and was to end up with 42. Prominent among them was Cristina Hoyos, his stage partner for 20 years, who then left to form her own well-received ensemble.

Gades' company was to survive in different forms and with some stoppages until the beginning of his illness seven years ago. He choreographed Blood Wedding in 1974, Lorca's vivid play translated into powerful dance and realistic emotion. In 1981 this became his first film collaboration with Carlos Saura, who shot it in a rehearsal hall without sets or costumes, resulting in a wonderfully spare intensity. Carmen, El Amor Brujo and Fuego followed; they began in reverse as films (1983, 1985 and 1989), then stage presentations. The success of these films was unexpected, but it helped Gades keep his company going without subsidy or patronage.

He temporarily closed his company in 1975, as an act of shame and protest. He was in Bologna, applying his make-up before a benefit show for the Communist Party when he heard that the Franco regime had sanctioned the execution of five people. With Franco's death the same year, however, the climate gradually changed in Spain and in 1978 he accepted the post of director of the Ballet Nacional de España, at its launch by the Spanish Ministry of Culture. But he was not one to compromise his aesthetic vision or doff his cap at bureaucrats. After he had been two years in the post, the Ministry of Culture sacked him in a loud and controversial public row over policy.

He restarted the Ballet Antonio Gades and in 1994 choreographed Fuenteovejuna ("The Sheep Well"), after the play by Lope de Vega, based in turn on a real event 100 years earlier, in 15th-century Cordoba. It is a tale of simple townsfolk rising against the local despot out of moral outrage. Rather than concentrate on flamenco, he drew on the rich variety of Spanish folk dance - forms like the jota and seguidilla, still very much alive in Spain, but little known outside. He chose this diversity as a metaphor for different people uniting together.

On stage Gades's good looks ensured he had an imposing presence, but there was sometimes a blandness of phrasing that prevented his dancing from achieving true greatness. Looking back dispassionately on his career, he considered himself to have lacked talent in any one direction. "But over the years," he said, "it became an advantage to be able to do anything: dramatic parts, romantic parts, old men, young men." He was 58 when in Fuenteovejuna he cast himself as Frondoso, the young romantic male lead. In 1997 he brought the production to Glasgow (still playing Frondoso) and was to bring it the following year to London, but the plan was scuppered by his illness. In 2003 Fuenteovejuna was finally shown in London, at Sadler's Wells, performed by the Ballet Nacional de España.

Gades had cancer. He underwent operations and radiotherapy and indulged in his lifelong passion of sailing. An old friend of Cuba and Alicia Alonso, Cuba's national ballerina, he sailed his yacht last year from Spain to Havana. He said that the only sadness of dying was not to be able to go sailing again.

He returned to Havana last month to be presented with the Order of José Martí by Fidel Castro.

Nadine Meisner

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